The Grammarphobia Blog

Orientation day

Q: I’m a college administrator who deals with student orientation, which brings me to my question: Doesn’t “orientate” mean to face the east?

A: Etymologically, you’re right, but words have a way of straying from their original orientation.

The verb “orientate” first showed up in the mid-19th century with the meaning to “turn or face towards a specified direction; spec. to turn to the east,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Later in the 19th century, it came to be used figuratively in the sense of to put oneself “in the right position, esp. in relation to unfamiliar surroundings; to give direction to, guide; to tailor or adapt to specified circumstances.”

Still later in the century, the OED says, it took on the sense of to “align or position something relative to the point of a compass or some other specified position.”

The OED suggests that “orientate” may “perhaps” be a back formation from the noun “orientation.” (A back formation is a word formed by dropping a real or imagined part from another word.)

The noun “orientation,” in turn, was derived from the 18th-century verb “orient.”

The foundation for all these words is the noun “orient,” first recorded in the works of Chaucer in the late 14th century. It originally meant a region situated to the east.

Thus, the verb “orient” (first recorded in 1728) originally meant “to place or arrange (a thing or a person) so as to face the east,” according to the OED.

The more general senses of the verb “orient”— including “to position or align (a structure, etc.) with, or in a particular way relative to, the points of the compass, or other specified points,” or “to turn towards a specified point or direction”—developed from the middle to the late 19th century.

The OED notes that “orientate” is “more commonly used in British English than orient, while the latter is the more frequent of the two in American English.”

The dictionary adds that “orientate is commonly regarded as an incorrect usage in American English.” We wouldn’t go that far, but the older and more straightforward “orient” is generally preferred in the United States.

In case you’d like to read a bit more, we wrote a brief posting quite some time ago about “orient” and “orientate.”

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